A masterpiece of existentialist cinema, Luiz Sérgio Person’s 1965 São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima tells the tale of one man and his quest to desingage from modern society, the trappings of material success and the people around him, whom he seems unable to connect with.
To be surrounded by millions of people and to feel alone. To have several sexual encounters and be disconnected from anyone around you… To live in modern times and paradoxically feel like a slave to the god of technology – to be entrapped within the mega-machine… Carlos, the protagonist of São Paulo S/A, aka ‘São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima,’ is the modern man par excellence.
While wandering the streets of São Paulo, Carlos (Walmor Chagas), who has just left his wife Luciana (Eva Wilma) and baby son, recalls the last half decade of his life. His reminiscences highlight the key episodes that led to his apparent uneasiness: the aftermath of the suicide of his former lover Hilda (Ana Esmeralda); his relationship with work partner Arturo (Otelo Zeloni); his increasingly irritation with shallow lover Ana (Darlene Glória); and finally, his deteriorating marriage and tempestuous relationship with Luciana.
São Paulo is a cruel place – to fail here means being squashed like a bug, as if the city’s skyscrapers were the enormous legs of its captains of industry. As the film tells the classic tale of the man who despite achieving material success becomes increasingly disillusioned with life, it is significant to notice that this critique of modernity and its trappings is set in Brazil. At the time, capitalism in the country was in no way at an advanced stage. In 1900, São Paulo was still a dirty little town with no more than 250,000 souls; fifty years later, it was already a pulsating city, on the way to becoming Brazil’s main cultural, economic and political centre.
..Coming Home: Doubt and Desperation in Carlos’ Mind.
It is in this context that through the years, Carlos has become a slave to his own dream. And now he wants out. But before he attempts to escape (and eventually fails miserably!), Carlos tries to make sense of what went wrong in his life. It is ironic that the whole film holds such a premise (the protagonist searching for meaning) when for us, the viewers, it feels sometimes that this elliptical tale makes little sense. Carlos’ obsession throughout the film with a new beginning seems to suggest his belief in some sort of progress, which is strange for someone who got only an intense existential malaise from it.
However, in that period at the end of the 1950s and before Brazil entered the dark years of the military dictatorship in 1964, progress could not be ignored. It was a hypnotic mantra mesmerizing the country. Thus, forward he marches on… Through work and sex, Carlos tries to find a meaning to his life. When that search proves to be fruitless, he switches back to conventional mode, marries through inertial and pretends all is fine. He never enjoys any of that, not even the sex with his pretty girlfriends. In fact, the women in his life only bring him boredom and exasperation.
It is obvious that Carlos’ wife and lovers are meant to be the representation of different ideals. Luciana stands for the status quo, the common ideal, the conformist quest to acquire money, prestige and material security. Ana, in contrast, symbolises inconsequential rebellion, freedom without restrain. But it is Hilda the most interesting of the characters. She represents the quest itself. Like Carlos, she questions life, reflects on the very existence of the dilemma between freedom and security. But unlike him, Hilda shows courage to take a stand and isn’t paralysed by cynicism. She might have been the love of his life.
Carlos, like modern man, is divided between conformity and security on the one hand, and freedom and uncertainty on the other. In defining and understanding these ideals in such stark terms, this urbanite man by nature misses what is in front of him – obvious and clear: the fact that Hilda and him were destined to be together. They might have had too similar an outlook on life to be actually compatible as a couple, but Hilda would certainly understand Carlos’ existential crisis. Furthermore, her attitude might have frightened Carlos, but that quality would never push him to the abyss of boredom and stupidity.
Unfortunately, in each and every of their meetings, he always finds a way to offend her and dismiss her opinions. Perhaps he felt threatened by her brave wakefulness. Perhaps he is and always have been an asshole. What it matters is that he arguably missed his only chance in life to be happy. And in the same way that he scoffs at Hilda’s thoughts on the representation of war in the paintings of Segal and Picasso, fate laughs back him, mocking his loneliness and discontent. And Carlos seems to realise that when he reflects on Hilda’s suicide: ‘Hilda is dead. And her death could not even find the pretext of a war.’
Rich with symbolic ideas and layers of meanings, and dealing with profound themes, São Paulo S/A is one of the greatest Brazilian films of all time, which deserves to be known more extensively.